For more than 20 years Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn has proudly cast himself as a people's advocate. He helped create the 150,000-member Citizens Utility Board, which has acted as a trusted consumer watchdog of the utility industry since 1983.
Quinn has long raged against the political clout wielded by the company formerly known as Ameritech, then Ameritech/SBC, and now just plain ol' SBC. But while SBC has been making a major power play to seize control of the Illinois Commerce Commission, Quinn has strangely chosen to remain silent.
After Governor Rod Blagojevich appointed the almost completely unknown Lula Ford to the ICC a month ago, Quinn told the Chicago Sun-Times that he hoped he would have input on the next appointment. But when the governor appointed SBC sympathizer Ed Hurley as the new ICC chairman last week, Quinn was once again left out of the loop.
A CUB spokesman immediately predicted Hurley would be an "anti-consumer" chairman. But when given a chance to criticize the appointment, Quinn took a pass. "He said it was sort of beyond his pay grade," explained his spokesman, Claude Walker.
Walker, also a longtime CUB member, stuck to the script, claiming that Quinn could still affect change at the ICC by other means.
Quinn's refusal to even mildly criticize Governor Blagojevich over these appointments had insiders smirking all week. The formerly fearless Quinn now appears to have completed a transformation from radical consumer champion into loyal political foot soldier.
Walker also refused to comment on Commissioner Ford's first telecommunications-related vote two weeks ago. Ford voted with Hurley to reconsider SBC's service requirements. She even stated that the commission's rules should be relaxed for SBC.
So why is Blagojevich packing the ICC with SBC's friends?
Helping SBC has serious political benefits for the governor--mainly because SBC's president, Bill Daley, is the brother of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Blagojevich has at times seemed to go out of his way to alienate the Springfield political establishment, but he has been extremely careful to keep Daley happy--even appointing the mayor's allies to Cabinet positions.
Daley won 78 percent of the vote in last week's Chicago primary. He has an awe-inspiring political organization, but his main loyalty is to his family. Bill Daley's marching orders from SBC's chairman seem simple: Get everything you can out of Illinois regulators.
The governor is surrounded by people with ties to SBC. Blago's chief legal counsel, Susan Lichtenstein, was Ameritech/SBC's chief legal counsel. His 2002 political director, John Wyma, lobbies for SBC in Washington, D.C. Tony Rezko raised a reported $500,000 for the governor's campaign last year--he also pops up on a list of lobbyists for a firm that does business with SBC. The governor's most trusted media adviser, David Wilhelm, once represented SBC.
What does all this mean for consumers? SBC has long claimed that the best way to spur competition is to allow it to increase retail rates. I am not making this up. The ICC can also help SBC kill off its competition in the high-speed Internet access, or "broadband," market by allowing the company to shut off its competitors' access to its wire network. The commission can allow SBC to jump into the long-distance business without forcing it to open up to real competition in the local market.
Meanwhile, Pat Quinn, former consumer activist, sits on the sidelines.